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The best and brightest performances of 2016

The actors, musicians, and athletes who made this an entertainment year to remember.

Javier Zarracina / Vox

“Entertainment” is a vast term comprising many forms of media, countless genres, and infinite levels of quality. But no piece of entertainment exists independent of performers — the central figures who give presence, life, and meaning to the various diversions in which we choose to lose ourselves.

This year’s entertainment offerings were as wide-ranging as ever, and its central performances equally so: From world-famous pop singers to unknown child actors to dominant athletes, 2016’s best performers were those unique figures operating at the top of their respective games and elevating those games with their mere presence. In the ongoing search for meaning and goodness during a tumultuous and confusing year, these entertainers (presented here alphabetically and unranked) were our leading lights.

Amy Adams, Arrival and Nocturnal Animals

Amy Adams’s Arrival performance is one of the most affecting in years.
Paramount Pictures

It’s not news that Amy Adams is terrific, but 2016 was especially good to her, giving her two different roles in which she shines. In Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, she plays a stylish art dealer with a beautiful life who receives a novel manuscript in the mail from her ex-husband. For most of the film, she’s just reading and reacting to what she reads — but as the novel wears on her psychologically, we can see the effects: Her carefully polished public image begins to droop, and she’s visibly stressed, even as she maintains a severe exterior calm.

In Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, Adams plays a linguist called by the government to try to communicate with a group of aliens that have arrived on Earth with no apparent agenda and are hovering above the ground in giant, pod-like ships. Adams’s character is quiet and sad at first, but as she encounters the aliens and accepts the challenge of talking to them, she comes alive, wonder and purpose shining in her eyes. The role is a perfect match for Adams’s combination of wisdom and innocence, and she gives one of the most affecting performances of the year.

(Adams was also in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but nobody knows why.)

Samantha Bee, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee

Samantha Bee
Samantha Bee leaned into frustrated rage this election season on Full Frontal.

After making her mark on Comedy Central as The Daily Show’s longest-serving correspondent, Samantha Bee ventured to TBS this year to anchor her own show with all the fire she could muster. That she did so the same year Donald Trump rose to power was especially fitting, given the misogynistic overtones of his campaign and Bee’s status as the only woman — and a fire-breathing liberal one, at that — fronting a late-night political show.

As other late-night hosts like John Oliver and Trevor Noah took the bewildered “how could this happen?!” route, Bee fully embraced her frustration and rage. Where she and her (especially inclusive) staff saw toxic partisan stupidity, they dissected and ripped into it with relish, laying bare the bones to show their audience exactly how things got so bad. In a year stuffed to the brim with political opinions, Bee found a way to make hers a unique and vital resource for liberals grasping to understand Trump’s America.


beyonce superbowl
Beyoncé’s performance at the Super Bowl halftime show in February was just the beginning of the singer’s massive 2016.

Beyoncé set the tone for her 2016 when she dropped her single “Formation” the day before she was scheduled to appear at the Super Bowl, then performed the spanking-new song in a fiery, controversial halftime show performance. Shock and awe were the watchwords of the year for Beyoncé, who used the same tactic when it came time to release her game-changing full-length album Lemonade in April.

Accompanied by an hour-long “visual album” that premiered on HBO — and garnered four Emmy nominations — Lemonade spanned genres and media, its debut expertly calibrated to signal that Beyoncé’s latest project was a capital-E Event. The momentum of that surprise release carried over to the singer’s Formation World Tour, which spanned half the year and wound up being 2016’s second-highest-grossing music tour, with Beyoncé performing to well over 2 million fans eager to worship their Queen B.

Anna Camp, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

When will Anna Camp get the TV series she deserves? After spending years quietly stealing scenes on everything from True Blood to Pitch Perfect to The Good Wife, the woman deserves the chance to lead a project of her own. She was a standout on Amazon’s quickly canceled Good Girls Revolt, but the show came and went before she could really showcase her skills. To see Camp at her best in 2016, you had to turn to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

As Deirdre, the Upper East Side society wife with an Ivy League political science degree, Camp is hypnotizing, terrifying, and hilarious. Her eyes glassy behind a gleaming Stepford wife smile, she tosses off Sun Tzu references in the same breath that she discusses child care plans. When she realizes she might have finally met her match in Jane Krakowski’s Jacqueline, her whole face lights up with desperate glee: At last, there’s someone in the world worthy of her formidable talents.

Chance the Rapper

Tyler, the Creator's 5th Annual Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival - Day 1
Chance the Rapper performs at Exposition Park in Los Angeles on November 12, 2016.
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Chance the Rapper has spent the past few years catching the eyes of and collaborating with the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West, so it was only a matter of time before he became a phenomenon in his own right — and lo, he did just that in 2016.

Chance kicked off the year with co-writing credits on several songs for West’s The Life of Pablo, released in February. In May, the 23-year-old rapper released his own full-length album, Coloring Book, a lush and complex gospel-inspired record that feels like the finished product to The Life of Pablo’s first draft. He then spent most of the rest of the year touring and registering his young fans to vote, but still found time to turn in an ethereal version of “Dear Theodosia” for The Hamilton Mixtape, and to perform on Saturday Night Live. Any one of these accomplishments would be significant enough to merit mention, but together they confirm Chance as the singular talent he is.

The Chicago Cubs

World Series - Chicago Cubs v Cleveland Indians - Game Seven
The Chicago Cubs celebrate after defeating the Cleveland Indians 8-7 in Game Seven of the 2016 World Series.
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Chicago Cubs’ 2016 season was the stuff sports movies are made of. Not only did the long-suffering team break two longstanding championship droughts — the Cubbies had gone 71 years without winning their league, and a whopping 108 years without winning a World Series — they did it with the sort of panache that definitively puts to rest all talk of goats and curses.

After finishing the regular season with the best record in the major leagues for the first time since 1945, the Cubs advanced to what would turn out to be a World Series for the ages, which pitted them against the team with the second-longest World Series drought, the Cleveland Indians. With the Cubs coming back from a 3-1 deficit, the nail-biting Series continued all the way through Game 7, which ended up being the sort of game sports fans (and even non-sports fans) will rhapsodize about for years to come.

In the parlance of Saturday Night Live’s Stefon, this game had everything: the first lead-off home run in World Series history, a blown lead, a late-game comeback, a rain delay that extended a ninth-inning tie, and a picture-perfect game-ending out. Even those who’d never sat through a full game of baseball in their life couldn’t help but get caught up in this exceptional sports drama.

Julian Dennison, Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Julian Dennison stars as Ricky Baker in Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
Julian Dennison stars as Ricky Baker in Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

Julian Dennison, who turned 14 this year, stars in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, one of the year’s funniest comedies and now the highest-grossing New Zealand film in history. Directed by Taika Waititi (who is slated to direct Thor: Ragnarok), Hunt for the Wilderpeople is about Dennison’s Ricky Baker, a foster kid who is taken in by kindly Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and her grumpy husband, Hec (Sam Neill). Bella dies, and rather than have Ricky get taken away again and placed back into the system, Hec and Ricky take off for the bush.

Sam Neill is great and all, but it is absolutely Dennison’s performance that makes Hunt for the Wilderpeople the delight it is. As Dennison plays him, Ricky is equal parts little kid who’s all too used to abandonment and confident adventurer who stands out (in his hoodie and hat) from the wild bush surroundings in comical relief. The part also requires a lot of physical comedy, and Dennison’s timing is preternaturally perfect, with slapstick precision for maximum chuckles — though his nonchalant affection for Hec tugs at heartstrings, too.

Daveed Diggs, Hamilton, Black-ish, and The Get Down

2016 Tony Awards - Show
Daveed Diggs accepts the Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical for his work in Hamilton.
Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

Daveed Diggs is best known for originating the dual roles of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s rap-musical juggernaut Hamilton, first in its off-Broadway production and then on Broadway. For anyone who caught Diggs in Hamilton before he left on July 15, his entrance as Jefferson in “What’d I Miss,” the first number in the musical’s second act, was one of the show’s onstage revelations: Clad in a velvet suit with coattails, Diggs dances and sings his way home from France to Monticello, and then to New York to take his position as Washington’s secretary of state. His performance is kinetic and explosive, establishing everything we need to know about the larger-than-life character (and Hamilton’s main adversary, after Aaron Burr). Diggs won a Tony for his performance and was crowned the fastest rapper on Broadway.

But even before he left Hamilton, Diggs was busy with side projects that show how truly multitalented he is. In Baz Luhrmann’s Netflix show The Get Down, which premiered in August, Diggs played a Nas-like rapper whose performances serve as a framing device for the show’s narrative. He’s been on Black-ish this season as Rainbow’s younger brother Johan, an aesthete who — in what has to be a nod to Hamilton — has recently returned to the States after living in France and seems to antagonize certain members of the family with his very presence. And on top of his acting duties, Diggs is a member of the rap group clipping., which released a new album in September. The man? He’s nonstop.

Cynthia Erivo, The Color Purple

Cynthia Erivo’s performance in The Color Purple on Broadway sneaks up on you gradually over the course of the show. As its heroine, Celie, Erivo starts off as a battered and victimized child who has learned from experience that calling attention to herself means pain. She seems to be trying to erase herself from the stage by sheer force of will. But she reveals herself in little flashes: the softness in her voice when she sings, “I want to sit and do nothing, make you a new dress,” to her beloved sister; the delight when she meets wild, brassy Sofia and says all in a rush, “Dear God, I love this woman”; the understated bitterness when she asks her abusive husband, “What you care about ’sides yourself?”

By intermission, Erivo has complete control of the stage, and the audience is in the palm of her hand. She turns the insubstantial doo-wop song “Miss Celie’s Pants” into a show-stopping number of liberation and joy, and the climactic anthem “I’m Here” becomes a transcendent moment of catharsis.

In the clip above, as Erivo performs “I’m Here” at the Kennedy Center, Oprah Winfrey clutches someone’s hands as she sits in the audience and silently mouths the word “Wow.” She’s speaking for all of us.

Donald Glover, Atlanta

Donald Glover plays Earn in Atlanta, which he also created.

Donald Glover is a live wire. If you remember a comedic moment from Community, the odds are good he was involved somehow, and his most memorable film roles to date have all been outsize, showy guys with an element of flash to them. (He’ll get a chance to exercise that side of himself again when he plays young Lando Calrissian in 2018’s upcoming Han Solo film.)

That’s what made it so fascinating to see how subdued his character Earn could be in the FX series Atlanta, which Glover created and stars in, in addition to writing and directing many of the show’s episodes. Earn is about the furthest thing imaginable from the cracklingly funny guy Glover usually plays: cautious and hesitant, always very considered in what he says and does.

By season’s end, Earn’s hesitancy reveals itself as a key piece of the series’ mission to underline the black experience in America with hefty doses of surrealism and comedy. Earn is cautious because he has to be, but also because he knows that if he ever says what he truly thinks, people will write him off as “too emotional.” It’s an expertly threaded needle, and it further marks Glover as a great actor.

John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lane

John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in a scene from "10 Cloverfield Lane"
John Goodman and Mary Elizabeth Winstead in 10 Cloverfield Lane.
Paramount Pictures

John Goodman is the guy you hire if you want your movie, TV show, or stage play to be guaranteed a memorable, flickering bright spot. He’s routinely the best thing about bad projects, and when he appears in a good one, he almost always gives it the edge to push it over the top.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead, in contrast, is an actress whom mainstream Hollywood seems perpetually unsure of how to utilize. She has a bit of an ’80s Sigourney Weaver feel to her. She’s got terrific physical presence, and she’s scorchingly good when she’s playing dark, complicated roles in indie films like Smashed and Faults. But some people keep trying to turn her into just another love interest in male-centered stories.

Goodman and Winstead collided for the better in the dark thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane, where Winstead plays a young woman held captive by Goodman’s character in an underground bunker. He insists the world has ended. She thinks he might be lying. The complicated duet between the two dominates the film and elevates it beyond cheeky genre fun into something more complicated and enthralling.

Royalty Hightower, The Fits

Royalty Hightower, star of "The Fits," does crunches in the gym.
Royalty Hightower, star of The Fits.

One of 2016’s strongest debut features, Anna Rose Holmer’s mysterious, beautiful The Fits turns on an equally strong debut performance. Playing an 11-year-old tomboy named Toni who is drawn into a dance troupe of older girls, newcomer Royalty Hightower was discovered as part of a kids’ dance team. The physicality she brings to her performance as Toni is both remarkable for someone so young and essential to the film’s narrative progression.

The Fits story, while linear, is far from a straight line, and as the central figure in the film’s narrative, Hightower gives a performance that both grounds the film and contributes to its ethereal quality. The Fits is less a movie you watch than a trance you fall into, with Hightower as the tiny sprite casting its spell.

Isabelle Huppert in Elle and Things to Come

French actress Isabelle Huppert is the driving force behind two great 2016 films, including Elle.
Sony Pictures Classics

As A.O. Scott put it in his New York Times review of Things to Come, “Isabelle Huppert: great actress or world’s greatest actress?” No list of best performances in 2016 would be complete without a mention of the venerable French actress, who didn’t just appear in two of the year’s most critically acclaimed films but is the driving force behind their greatness.

In Paul Verhoeven’s controversial Elle, Huppert plays a video game executive who is raped in her own home, and responds in none of the ways anyone expects; by turns vengeful, lustful, commanding, and wry, she is nobody’s fool. In Mia Hansen-Løve’s Things to Come, Huppert is a philosophy professor rediscovering her sense of self when her life turns upside down. The two characters don’t have much in common, but Huppert inhabits them both, a whirlwind of energy and thoughtfulness, emotions near the surface — she’s the kind of actress for whom the word “effortless” seems to have been invented.

Carly Rae Jepsen

FYF Fest 2016 - Day 2
Carly Rae Jepsen performs onstage during FYF Fest 2016.
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for FYF

If you only know Canadian pop pixie Carly Rae Jepsen for “Call Me Maybe,” you’re missing out. After releasing her critically acclaimed and unjustly underperforming album Emotion in 2015, Jepsen gifted fans with a new EP of Emotion B-sides in 2016 — and they’re arguably just as good as the tracks that made the initial cut. Jepsen’s songs are pure shots of synth sunshine; in 2016, they were bright spots in a year that sorely needed them.

Dwayne Johnson, Moana

The World Premiere of Disney's 'MOANA'
Dwayne Johnson and songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda perform onstage at the world premiere of Disney’’s Moana.
Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney

The ongoing evolution of Dwayne “formerly known as The Rock” Johnson from professional wrestler and action flick stereotype to full-blown movie star continued apace in 2016; the sentient ball of charisma anchored one of the year’s top-grossing comedies (Central Intelligence) as well as its best animated feature, Disney’s Moana.

A vocal cheerleader for Moana (and, let’s face it, pretty much every project in which Johnson, a canny self-promoter, is involved), he was a driving force for the film both offscreen and on, providing the voice for the demigod Maui and repeatedly highlighting Moana’s cultural heritage during the movie’s promotional tour. (Among other things, Johnson, who is of Samoan descent, performed a traditional Polynesian dance on Good Morning America.) Proving once again there’s no corner of the entertainment universe that won’t accommodate his hulking presence, Johnson was a glorious surprise with his performance of “You’re Welcome,” Moana’s most instantly earwormy musical number.

Kate McKinnon, Ghostbusters and Saturday Night Live

Kate McKinnon’s Jillian Holtzmann stole every Ghostbusters scene she was in.

Saturday Night Live has been lucky to have Kate McKinnon’s manic energy for four years now, but 2016 was her best year yet. Her wide-eyed Hillary Clinton impression became an election-year staple, even if her sporadic explosions of frustrated rage were more cathartic than accurate. But McKinnon also honed some more of her original wild women characters to perfection this year — most notably Colleen, a disgruntled alien abductee whose raw-deal experiences almost always make McKinnon’s scene partners break character into laughter.

Still, for our money, McKinnon’s best performance in 2016 belonged squarely to Ghostbusters, in which she plays scientist Jillian Holtzmann. Sporting goggles and a gravity-defying curled bouffant, McKinnon stole every scene she was in with a non sequitur and good-natured smirk.

Moonlight’s ensemble

Janelle Monae, Naomie Harris, Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Mahershala Ali at the Critics’ Choice Awards, where they won Best Acting Ensemble.
Janelle Monae, Naomie Harris, Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Mahershala Ali at the Critics’ Choice Awards, where they won Best Acting Ensemble.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

One of the most widely acclaimed movies of 2016, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight features a remarkable cast that resists a qualitative hierarchy. The film follows a black boy named Chiron through three stages of his life and sexual awakening in Miami; the way it’s structured means each of the three actors who play Chiron — Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes — is crucial to its unfolding portrait of self-discovery. To claim one’s performance as “the best” over the other two would be a disservice both to the actors and to the film itself.

Additionally, the supporting cast, featuring — Naomie Harris as Chiron’s troubled mom, Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monaé as his surrogate family, and André Holland as the object of his adult fascination — are just as important to telling Chiron’s story as Chiron, considering the character speaks only a handful of words throughout the film.

Some awards-giving bodies have defaulted to Rhodes as Moonlight’s central actor — not undeservedly, as he is indeed exceptional as adult Chiron — but more have opted to recognize the ensemble as a whole, which seems most fitting to the spirit of the film. Take any one of these actors out of the equation, and Moonlight wouldn’t be the extraordinary work that it is.

The cast of Speechless

The cast of ABC’s Speechless, one of the year’s best new comedies.

ABC’s excellent new sitcom about a tight-knit, cynical family whose eldest son has non-verbal cerebral palsy has been sharp since its very first episode, thanks in large part to its talented cast. Micah Fowler — who has cerebral palsy in real life — is excellent as “speechless” teen J.J., witty and wry when bouncing off Cedric Yarbrough as his caregiver and the various people who often make ridiculous attempts to connect with him. Mason Cook and Kyla Kenedy are quick as J.J.’s siblings Ray and Maya, opposites in every way except for their mutual (if begrudging) devotion to their family. And as their parents, Minnie Driver and John Ross Bowie are enthusiastic dirtbags who delight in soaking up every drop of sympathy they can get for J.J. if it means a higher quality of life. All together, they make for one of the messiest and most believable families on television.

The United States women’s Olympics gymnastics team

US gymnasts Lauren Hernandez, Simone Biles, Madison Kocian, Alexandra Raisman and Gabrielle Douglas pose for a photo at a practice session of the women's Artistic gymnastics at the Olympic Arena on August 4, 2016 ahead of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
US gymnasts Lauren Hernandez, Simone Biles, Madison Kocian, Alexandra Raisman, and Gabrielle Douglas pose for a photo at a practice session.

In 2012, the US women’s gymnastics team asserted their international dominance with an overpowering gold medal win at the London Olympics. This year, at the Rio Games, the team defended its gold and established its legacy as a dynasty by winning the team competition by 8 points — an insurmountable lead in a sport where the champion is often decided by tenths or even hundredths of a point.

Known as the Final Five, the team was led by example by the gravity-defying deity known as Simone Biles, a young woman whose tumbling passes boast the thrill and power of an avalanche screaming down the face of the mountain. Laurie Hernandez, the baby of the group at 16, was charming and magnetic on the floor and balance beam. Madison Kocian, a bars specialist, crushed her routines. And Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman, the two veterans from that 2012 win, showed the grace, grit, and perseverance required to return to a demanding sport and become the first women in history to be part of two gold medal–winning gymnastics teams.

Contrary to a lot of Olympic stories, there was no suspense in the Final Five’s gold medal win. There was no last-minute miracle — because it wasn’t necessary. The competition was never close, and there were no worthy rivals. The team exhibited sheer domination from the start of the first event to end of the last. In that way, they were this year’s best and brightest example of American exceptionalism.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag

Phoebe Waller-Bridge is the brittle, brilliant presence at the center of Fleabag.

Fleabag wouldn’t work without Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s brittle, brilliant performance at its center — which makes sense, since she’s the show’s creator, writer, and star. Her character (whom we only ever know as “Fleabag”) is a quick-witted, casually selfish woman who speaks directly to the audience as if we’re a stand-in for her diary. But in Waller-Bridge’s hands, it’s clear that Fleabag is vulnerable beneath her immediate snark, and that vulnerability only emerges when her defenses finally come tumbling down, despite her very best and most nihilistic efforts. It’s a treacherous tightrope of a role, and Waller-Bridge never once falters.

Evan Rachel Wood, Westworld

Evan Rachel Wood plays Dolores, a key character in HBO’s Westworld.

So much of what HBO’s Westworld is trying to do is tied up in the work of one actress, Evan Rachel Wood. As Dolores, the oldest robotic Host in the titular park, Wood has to play what would seem to be an impossible character arc: the evolution toward consciousness. And yet at every turn — even when the story is needlessly convoluted or lets her down — she nails it.

Westworld let us know just how good Wood is early on, in the series premiere. Dolores is brought in for a quick rundown with a park technician, who asks her, steadily, to drop layers of her “performance”; first her gasping sobs, then her accent. Wood goes from full-on trauma to someone who’s seemingly comatose in a matter of seconds, and it never feels gimmicky. Wood’s promise has been evident since she was a child actor on the terrific series Once and Again, but Hollywood hasn’t always known how to use her. With Westworld, she’s finally come into her own.